Why Trump’s cronies don’t stand up to him
By DAVID VON DREHLE | The Washington Post | Published: March 4, 2019
Like so many figures from the world of President Donald Trump, his former lawyer Michael Cohen appears to have been recruited from a dinner theater production of “Guys and Dolls.” He looks like maybe his nose stood a little too close to the wrong person’s fist. Like the kind of fella who thinks Paul “Paulie Suits” Manafort looks real sharp in his ostrich windbreaker. Like someone who knows there are worse ways to make a living than brandishing metaphorical baseball bats at college registrars who might publish the Boss’ grade point average. In certain lines of work, the bats are real.
Remember Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci? He was Trump’s White House communications director for approximately as long as it takes to dump a body in the Meadowlands. The Mooch’s qualification was a very New York vocabulary. All his favorite words began with “F.”
Cohen came close to that level of blunt force brevity while testifying about “Mistuh Trump” in Congress last week. “He is a racist. He is a con man. And he is a cheat,” Cohen declared. But while a turncoat’s testimony is standard second-act fare in goombah dramas, the congressional reaction offered a fresh twist.
As expected, Republicans on the House Oversight and Reform Committee spent an entire day trying to expose Cohen as a liar. For example, they pointed out that he’s headed to prison for lying. They reproved, in very loud and angry tones, his lack of thoroughness in completing a government questionnaire. They even displayed a large photograph of Cohen labeled “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” To which one can only add: “hanging on a telephone wire.”
In short, they tried everything to discredit Cohen’s charges — except disputing them. Racist, con man, cheat. No one sputtered, “Have you no decency?” No one wept for this good man’s good name. Even drug kingpins are praised for remembering widows and orphans. But Trump’s alleged chiseling at his “charitable” foundation went unrefuted.
So the question is not “Where does Trump find his hoodlum henchmen?” It’s “Where does America find such sad excuses for elected leaders?” Either they believe Trump was smeared and are too pusillanimous to defend him, or they accept that the president is indeed a racist, con man and cheat but are too groveling to defend the country.
The answer is that we find these people in congressional districts with boundaries drawn to guarantee one-party rule. According to the Cook Political Report, 165 of the 197 seats currently held by Republicans are already safely locked up for the GOP in 2020; by contrast, only four of those seats are considered toss-ups.
In safe districts, politics doesn’t work the way you were taught in grade school. Reasonable people don’t meet in the middle. Instead, the purists and activists in the dominant party choose a nominee, and that person steamrolls to victory.
Once an incumbent occupies a safe seat, the future narrows to a single imperative: no primaries. As long as the activists are happy, and as long as they snuff out any insurrection that might be stirring back home, the job is secure. Seniority accumulates. Power grows. Life is good.
When congressional Republicans grovel their way through televised hearings, they’re groveling to the party activists in their districts who see the world entirely in terms of Us against Them. This core vote, The Base, will forgive nearly any excess in the partisan cause, but regards moderation as a mortal sin.
Safe seats aren’t the evil design of one party or the other. They are the creation of a conspiracy of Insiders whose shared goal is to simplify the complexity of politics in a diverse nation. Making a seat safe for Republicans often entails the concentration of Democrats in their own safe seat nearby. For instance, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — chief groveler of the Cohen cross-examiners — holds an unthreatened district adjacent to an equally safe Democratic seat occupied by Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who proved her left-wing bona fides by supporting Vermont socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, in 2016.
Regardless of party, the resulting dynamic is the same. Fear of primaries is the driving political force in Congress. For Republicans, the fallout is perhaps marginally more embarrassing, because the twin disasters of the botched Iraq reconstruction and the Great Recession left the GOP establishment in shambles. Years later, the party’s operating manual is still “Lord of the Flies.”
The party hacks and their hairsprayed con men are symbiotic now, bound not by respect but by fear. If one falls, they all fall — or so the calculation goes. “It’s not personal,” said Michael Corleone, whose hangdog eyes bore a passing resemblance to the sad chocolate orbs of Michael Cohen. “It’s strictly business.”
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist. He is the author of “Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.”